A social experiment shows that people assigned a “lower status” are more likely to share their wealth than those assigned a “higher status.”

The new study from Queen Mary University of London involved a series of economic games in which people played with other people for real money. The games involved participants deciding how much money they kept and how much they gave to a group pot. The money in the pot was always shared with all the players, the researchers explain.

Participants were assigned a status, either “higher status” or “lower status.” This determined how much money they were allotted to play the games.

In some experiments participants were allocated high or low status based on chance, while in other experiments they were allocated high or low status based on effort, according to the researchers.

The study found that, overall, the low-status participants contributed more than the high-status participants.

Also, the researchers discovered that high-status participants contributed even less when they had earned their wealth through effort compared to those who had acquired their riches through chance.

The study demonstrates under laboratory conditions that once we gain access to more resources, the way we gained access determines how we behave with others, according to the researchers.

“For the high-status individuals, the way in which wealth was achieved, whether through chance or effort, appeared to be the key factor determining the level of cooperation observed,” said lead author Dr. Magda Osman from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

“This wasn’t the case for the low-status individuals. How they got to their low status made no difference to their behavior in the game.

“If you gain high status through effort, rather than chance, you are even more likely to want to keep what you own,” she said. “When you have limited status, one obvious strategic way to increase it is through cooperation. The point here being that even if one is acting cooperatively, there is no reason to think that this is purely for altruistic reasons.”

She added there was an element of risk to the game.

“If you contribute anything to the shared pot, there is no way of knowing, and no guarantee, that anyone else from the group will do the same,” she said. “So what is surprising is that low-status individuals are willing to take a bigger risk with fewer resources than the high status individuals. In other words, you take a risk by being prosocial because you have no idea if it will be reciprocated.”

The study also showed we can’t rely on empathy as a way to improve the good will of those who are in high-status positions, the researchers said, noting this consistently failed to work in the experiments.

“The other surprising finding is that empathy has next to no impact on promoting prosocial behavior, in other words contributing money to the group pot,” Osman said. “This matters because there are a lot of claims that empathy is the glue that binds people to act socially. What we show is that when money matters, empathy plays virtually no role in improving prosocial behaviors.”

The study was published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Source: Queen Mary University of London